Leaving Wall Street for a career in tech, Ben Davis never looked back. Joining Intercom as one of the first sales ops hires, he watched the company go from zero to $50M on the back of the self-serve business model. Now the Head of Growth at Air, a creative operations system for marketers, Ben leads sales, sales development, and revenue operations functions. Below is an excerpt of a recent conversation we had around the role of sales leadership with a Product-Led Sales (PLS) strategy.
Looking back on your early days at Intercom, what drew you into product-led growth (PLG)?
Ben Davis (BD): Self-serve piqued my interest from the very beginning, largely because a mentor of mine worked on that side of the business at Intercom and it always seemed like the natural evolution of SaaS. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of my career chasing that pursuit and led SMB and self-serve sales at Coda before joining Air last year.
My perspective about the self-serve business model has also evolved over the past few years—especially when I was at Coda. At the time, we were seeing so many other companies piling on a product-led motion as the only way to market their businesses. Except they weren’t thinking about what product-led actually meant and I think this is still the case for lots of folks.
What do you think companies need to run a successful product-led motion?
BD: Most products don’t have the natural virality required to make a product-led motion successful on its own, and it’s insanely difficult to bake virality into the product. I see a lot of companies, especially Series A and Seed startups, coming out the gates with free signups and self-serve funnels without thinking about where that near-term growth will come from—nor do they have the right resources to support it.
For example, think about a company like Notion, a once-in-a-lifetime viral success story, that can afford program managers to manage the self-serve business. They can run tests with efficacy across hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of its self-serve users. But this isn’t the case for most businesses. Without the right resources, you’re left trying to influence a product leader or sales owner, who’s comped on business performance and sales effectiveness, to give you support. It’s a really tough position to be in. Especially for early-stage companies, where direct sales can help them show immediate proven growth while they invest in the self-serve motion long term.
What are the top priorities for a sales leader in a product-led motion?
BD: Your goal as a sales leader is allocating the right capital to the right revenue sources. This means making decisions based on what’s best for the company. While we’re still sorting through our product-led ownership at Air, self-serve is part of the larger funnel that needs resourcing. Sales leaders, especially those in a PLS motion, can’t be afraid to fix inefficiencies or allocate resources to self-serve as they get more and more out of its funnel.
Data-driven skills are another priority for sales in a product-led world. Sales reps need more product training. They also have to be more data-focused (possibly even comfortable writing SQL) with an ability to answer questions in tools outside of Salesforce. This requires a broader skill set than before—often involving more technical and operational backgrounds—in addition to their sales experience.
Great point—while Product-Led Sales is a consultative relationship, it’s still sales. How do you see the role of sales evolving?
BD: In my experience, sales is often seen as a lesser craft within the organization. Lots of folks, especially those in product, see product-led as a way to crack the revenue equation without actual sales reps. Yet we continue to see a shifting view about sales with increasingly more MBAs going into the field. I think the role of sales in PLG will continue to evolve, but a sales skill set will remain critical when it comes to building relationships and winning over prospects—things that can’t be solved by the product alone.
How should product-led GTM leaders approach pricing in a PLS motion?
BD: In a product-led motion, the goal of pricing is to clearly define what’s self-serve, what’s sales-led, and why someone would want to talk to sales. These levers should make it easy for someone to understand why they’d level up from free plans to higher plans and what they unlock in doing so. For example, when you sign up for Air’s Pro plan, you pay $30/seat/month no matter what. But if you reach out to Sales for an enterprise deal, you’re not just another enterprise to us and we don’t try to upsell you. We work with the customer to provide a different per-seat price for multiple tiers of user permission sets, which is something that you fundamentally don't get on our Pro tier. We try to make it a win-win for both parties.
What’s the biggest opportunity for PLG companies today?
BD: Great question! I think curated pricing is important when it comes to different customers and different use cases. The tension with pricing in a product-led world is that a lot of products are priced by seat, not by their usage. For example, we get companies with two seats that need 100 terabytes of storage. We also have three-seat customers paying for 500 guest users and 40-seat marketing teams that need everything. These are the kinds of situations where curated pricing becomes key.
While your product will never be priced perfectly for every customer, you’re leaving money on the table if you monetize based on seat amounts alone. Right now, our pricing is split into two buckets: self-serve and enterprise. Self-service is our pro, plus, and free plans. Enterprise is entirely custom and we’re constantly trying out new packaging. Our next evolution of pricing will help us monetize to the maximum amount with enterprise-tier pricing and packages for different types of end users.
Are there any common mistakes or misconceptions about running a successful product-led motion?
BD: I think one mistake people make is not investing enough in their data engineering resources. Invest in your data and modern GTM stack first—then build on top of them. At the end of the day, your data engineer is your very first sales hire and the biggest mistake you can make is not investing in that function.
Second, a lot of folks think starting a product-led journey is more complex than it is or requires tools they don’t already have. Eventually, you’ll need a tool like Calixa to evolve and accelerate your product-led motion, but you can start the journey with whatever resources you have on hand. I think the simplest way to do it is along the lines of what we do today, which is just reaching out to people who’ve done specific product actions we’ve deemed as valuable – in our case: uploaded content or added another user to their plan. Everyone has to start somewhere, and there’s no need to overcomplicate it in the beginning.